Home BBBinSTEM Dealing with Burnout in (and out of) the STEM Space
Dealing with Burnout in (and out of) the STEM Space

Dealing with Burnout in (and out of) the STEM Space


by Jedidah Isler, Ph.D.

For those of you who watched our show on July 5, 2016, you’ll know we talked about “Burnout, Bravery and Being a Woman of Color in STEM.” We had no idea at the time that we would also be dealing with another type of burnout, another heart-rending, communal weight on our psyche due to the extrajudicial murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. We had no idea that 5 Dallas officers would be killed or that the feeling of overwhelm about U.S. race relations and their impact on the very lives and mental health of our audience would be so heavy. At 7pm CT on July 5, 2016, all we knew was that many #WoCinSTEM were feeling an incredible amount of pressure and teetering on the edge of burnout by just doing their job. By just being in the (STEM) world as a woman of color.


Burnout in STEM

At that time, our conversation with Dr. Shine Chang gave us life. It gave us a language to describe things we had all felt before. It gave us tools to use, to identify, to understand, to cope with and to counteract the overwhelming sense of “never enough” or “always proving oneself.” We dealt with feeling like an “other” and just being plain tired. We talked of the trap of using overwork to become successful (of “work twice as hard, get half as much” fame) and how continuing along that path would lead to personal burnout. We talked about resilience and we agreed to talk with Dr. Chang again about her work and to share resources about what burnout looks like, primarily in the biomedical and medical fields, but without much extrapolation, to other STEM disciplines.

“…our conversation with Dr. Shine Chang gave us life. It gave us a language to describe things we had all felt before. It gave us tools to use, to identify, to understand, to cope with and to counteract the overwhelming sense of ‘never enough’ or ‘always proving oneself.’ “

So before we continue, we want to make sure and share those resources which we received from Dr. Chang. THANK YOU, SHINE (from the whole #VanguardSTEM community)! We are mostly sharing this information with you as a start to what we hope is a new persistent theme of combatting burnout (and building resilience) on the site. We are not advocating that you purchase anything (and do not have affiliate links or the like), but wanted to point you to the resources Shine shared:

Christina Maslach  is a leading expert in burnout as a research area. We’ve linked to her main page with the hopes that you’ll continue to dig in and find out more about her and her work.Take special note of her publications, which include books and journal articles on the topic.

– The three arenas of burnout that Dr. Chang talked about (emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and [diminished] personal accomplishment) are all part of the Maslach Burnout Inventory.

Warren Holleman is the director of faculty wellness at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. He’s written a lot about the issues that contribute to burnout and Shine suggests him as a good resource. We’re linking to a few posts directly, but there’s a wealth of information here if you’re interested.

Stress management

The 7 Habits of Highly Healthy People

The Things that Matter Most – In our Jobs or In Our Careers

We’ll be working on some resources that focus directly on women of color and/or that have women of color researchers. We’ll even see if we can get Dr. Chang to tell us more about her work!

One that we found and thought might be helpful: Putting a Spotlight on Diversity in Tech Burnout (ModelViewCulture)


Burnout in Society

Now, in the tumultuous and utterly devastating week since our show, our resilience has been put to the test and we face burnout of a different kind. The kind that comes with repeated trauma and having our fundamental pain – and seemingly our humanity – overlooked. That experience leads to a different (but related) kind of burnout and we wanted to share resources for that, too. First, some voices that we respect in the #VanguardSTEM community:

Dr. Danielle Lee talks on her SciAm blog “Urban Scientist” about being “Too Traumatized to Science.” In speaking of the long list of extrajudicial deaths of men, women and transpeople of color she says,

“The alarming deaths of these people who were minding their business. These tragedies hurt. They hurt in a way that is very real and personal and unhealing. And when I interact with other scientists, namely Black and Indigenous Scientists, the deep pain is shared…and the silence of our colleagues and institutions is deafening.”

Dr. Lee takes to task the fact that being educated does not insulate one from these incidences or their impact. She also includes resources for those that want to help. This is a do-not-miss read. Thank you, Danielle, for you always timely and important words.

Dr. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, who has developed a powerful organization called the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, weighed in on the tension academics feel about their activism and academic work. She shared some great advice in an essay titled “No Justice! No Peace! No Writing?” (HT to Dr. Aomawa Shields for the resource.)

Ashley Stoney, a black woman in corporate America who writes for the website Blavity, shared a narrative discussing her struggles to concentrate in our current climate.

We are centering these narratives to give voice to (varied perspectives on) how many of us have been feeling this past week. We’ll have more reflections during the rest of the month. The last thing to share are are some resources for getting through these difficult times as they relate to racial trauma.


Racial Trauma Resources

Self-care for People of Color after Emotional and Psychological Trauma (Just Jasmine Blog; HT to #VanguardSTEM intern, Chrystelle Vilfanc)

Self-care: How to Remain Vigilant in Your Pursuit of Justice and Keep Your Spirit Intact (Essence)

How to talk to (your) kids about wrongful deaths (NBCBLK)

Racism’s Psychological Toll (NY Times)

#RacialTraumaisReal (Boston College, ISPRC)

– A song by Sammus about depression, suicidal thoughts and being a black woman at an Ivy League institution (LA Times; HT #VanguardSTEM alum, Dr. Liz Wayne)

– And for those who do not identify as women of color in STEM, but want to know what you might do (especially white people), visit the Justin Cohen Blog; here’s an excerpt:

“There are many nuances and ambiguities in institutional racism, but the police committing murder is not one of them. In many cases, having these conversations will not be easy. The more you talk about race, however, the easier it will become. You might even change some minds, particularly among family members.”

How are you doing and what are you using to cope? Are there resources that we missed? Tell us about them in the comments below. We are here with you, in this painful moment, and we want to help you move through as we all work toward a better and brighter tomorrow.


Copyright © 2016 by Jedidah Isler
All rights reserved. The content above or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of #VanguardSTEM except for the use of brief quotations, with attribution, and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to #VanguardSTEM, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at hello@vanguardstem.com